Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another; love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.
—1 Peter 3:8-9
This past fall I had a transforming experience. In mid-September, I attended the Superintendents and Secretaries Meeting, which tries to gather superintendents and executive or field secretaries of yearly meetings, and heads of other organizations such as American Friends Service Committee, Friends General Conference, Friends World Committee for Consultation, and Friends United Meeting. Yearly meetings affiliated with Evangelical Friends International, Friends General Conference, and Friends United Meeting were represented, including three yearly meetings that are affiliated with both FGC and FUM.
I did not look forward to going. My last experience with the group (three years prior) was somewhat cordial, but mostly tense. Margaret Fraser, executive secretary of FWCC, convinced me (over several conversations) that I had to go, and a schedule change meant that it no longer conflicted with AFSC’s corporation meeting. So, go I did. And what a gift I received in return!
The rotating clerkship of the group fell to Curt Shaw, general superintendent of Western Yearly Meeting. Curt left his post at the end of 2004. Curt’s skilled clerking and agenda-setting provided the 12 of us gathered the opportunity to go to a very deep place where God could join us and we could speak across our differences. In our time together I found there is much that makes me hopeful that Friends of various traditions can work together across their differences.
Many of us were aware of the painful tension in FUM-affiliated yearly meetings over issues where Friends are not in unity—felt most sharply this year in Baltimore and Western yearly meetings. Although it is far more complex, same-sex marriage seems to have become the lightning rod for all the tensions.
In the spirit of worship and goodwill that prevailed during our time with each other, we were able to share our pain and our fears. One superintendent shared that he thought the issue of same-sex marriage was settled, at FUM anyway, and to keep bringing it up was making people angry. A general secretary asked him whether, even if the issue was settled for FUM and we disagreed, could we still work together on other issues like peacemaking?
Another participant challenged liberal Friends to think about the perception among many Friends that liberal Friends are just waiting for all Friends to "get it" on these issues. He also challenged liberal Friends to remain open to the possibility of being transformed by biblical interpretation.
A different general secretary challenged the perception of some Friends that liberals’ support of same-sex marriage is merely a case of conforming to changing cultural norms. That Friend described the many years of Bible study and worship his meeting took to discern the issue of same-sex blessings 20 years ago, a time long before any recognizable cultural shift.
I asked the group to consider our responsibility as Friends in a world gone mad with war and violence. I asked them to consider that if Friends are too divided to be at the center of the new movement bringing peace to the world, then who will?
Another general secretary said, "Where we rub up against each other in disagreement is where God works—we are being called in faithfulness to be a loving community, in all our differences."
Another superintendent shared how there is fear in many of the monthly meetings/churches that if we work together on issues like peacemaking, it will be perceived that we agree on the other issues. He went on to question what it is about our core values that prevents us from working on peacemaking together just because we disagree on these other issues.
I was reminded of something said by Mahatma Gandhi many years ago: "We must be the change we wish to see."
One superintendent mentioned, and all of us agreed, that people outside of our membership do not know we are divided—they only know of Quakers’ historic reputation for courageous witness.
I came away convinced that Friends cannot be that much-needed hub of peacemaking unless we practice peace among ourselves—until we in our own small world manage to model the beloved community. At present, we are too divided. We too often do not practice the charity and mutuality with our own brothers and sisters that we freely tell warring nations they should have for one another.
We all thought on these issues very deeply and, in the end, expressed an overwhelming desire to stay together to try to work it out—to become that beloved community. Our challenge, each of us, is to figure out how to put aside our disagreements, to tolerate each other with love, and to bring our collective Quaker shoulders to the wheel of peace. This is our historic destiny. This is what God is calling us to do—here and now.
If not us, who? If not now, when?